Today, I find myself mesmerized by a tomato. A plump, red tomato. Nothing is better than a sweet tomato during the summer. But let’s face it, it still is just a tomato. And yet, I find myself staring at it with a smile. Indulge me for a moment. I have now lived in the beautiful country of Croatia for 15 months. It has been a truly amazing and challenging experience in many ways.
But there is one aspect of living here that has come as the biggest surprise of them all: the kindness of strangers. Kindness seems to have gone out of fashion these days. With so many people struggling to work, feed and take care of their families, there is very little motivation to go out of your way to help another when it is so hard just to help yourself.
People are edgy. People are grumpy. People are just a little bit more feisty than they were 10 years ago. Despite of all of that, I have been absolutely astounded at the level of generosity and trust I’ve been shown in this country. Here are a few examples:
I’m a klutz.
In our first week here, my S.O. insisted we go running. I generally don’t run unless I’m being chased, but it was impressed upon me that leaving my desk every so often could do me some good. And so we ran. Well he ran, while I coughed and hacked and stopped every few feet. We were down by the water, “running” among the brush when I fell in a hole and cracked my ankle in half. (This is why I don’t run).
Unable to move, my S.O. ran back to the house to get the scooter so I wouldn’t have to hobble back. While I lay there in tears and unimaginable pain, a man and his dog appeared. I only spoke English; he only spoke Hrvatski. Yet, he was able to understand that I fell in a hole. He promptly directed a substantial f-bomb at the awful hole for hurting me (seriously) then ran back to his house to get something for my foot.
He returned within 5 minutes, removed my shoe and rubbed some kind of goo all over it, picked me up, put me on the scooter, handed me the goo to take home, gave me directions to put my foot in the sea for a while and waved goodbye.
Rewards for bills.
Our landlords live next door and have a spectacular garden that makes me neon green with envy. Sunflowers, broccoli, cauliflower, so many lettuces, eggplants, a fig tree, grapevines, a dozen tomato plants, cucumbers, zucchini. The list goes on.
I pay our water and electric bill directly to them on a monthly basis. The first month I paid our bill, they gave me a couple bunches of radishes and 3 heads of lettuce in return. The second month, they gave us 8 cucumbers, a couple kilos of cherry tomatoes (that were totally awesome by the way), a couple eggplants and a kilo of carrots. I can’t wait to see what next month will bring.
We don’t got no stinking insurance.
We procured a scooter a week after we arrived so that we could easily get around, park on the sidewalk and drive in between traffic. As we did not have legal residence at the time of purchase, the man who sold it to us offered to continue payment of the insurance on the scooter until we could legally get our own policy. To be clear, he did not say he would keep it is his name and have us reimburse him. He simply said he’d pay for it outright.
And that brings us back to the tomato.
This morning, I was walking back from the beach on a short road near my house. I passed a man and gave him the obligatory “dobar dan”, which means “good day”. He replied with a string of Croatian words I did not understand, but was obviously trying to get my attention. I told him I spoke only English. He nodded, and presented me with a basket. He uncovered it to reveal that it was full of tomatoes, of every possible size and shape. It was beautiful. He nudged me to pick one up.
I plucked a ripe one from the top and smelled its earthy sweetness, still fragrant of the vine. It became clear he wanted me to have it. He closed his basket, smiled and waved goodbye. And I have a half dozen more stories just like these. I don’t know if there is something in the water here. These may all be isolated incidents. Perhaps I just haven’t been here long enough. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. I just don’t know.
What I do know is that traveling as an American in the last 15 years has been hard. We get collectively blamed for a lot of the things we as individuals have no control over. It has been incredibly refreshing and reassuring that despite all of the bull shit in the world, one can still depend on (and be surprised by) the kindness of strangers. (On a totally unrelated note, take a look at this gorgeous sunset. It made the whole city glow.)